February 27, 2003
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Members of the McKinney School Power of the Pen group, front row, from left: Danielle Doubt, Marina Owen, Marissa Lite, Lara Donnelly, Ken Yamashita, Maddy Welsh and India Scarver; second row: Allison Gulick, Lasena Badger, Niquelle Orr, teacher Aurelia Blake and Erin Silvert-Noftle.

McKinney School’s Power of the Pen team—
Showing students a world of words

It’s 4:30 on a Thursday afternoon and most McKinney School students have long since beat a retreat from the classroom. But in Aurelia Blake’s language arts room, 11 seventh and eighth graders sit hunched over tables, furiously scribbling in their notebooks.

After the allotted time ends, everyone stops writing and hands wave in the air as kids volunteer to read their stories. One girl reads about a mother who lost her child in a custody battle, another reads about a female werewolf. Both stories are strong, assured and vivid.

“That was really good but I’d like more description,” one student says after the werewolf story was read.

“No, there was good description,” says another.

“What do werewolves smell like?” Blake says to the writer. “What do they sound like walking across a marble floor? Show me. Let me be right there.”

It’s a sight that makes Blake smile. “When kids show up twice a week after school, asking to write, saying, ‘give me a prompt,’ ” she said in a recent interview, “it’s the highlight of my week.”

What happens on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons from December through May is Power of the Pen, a group of middle school students who practice for the state Power of the Pen writing contests. Blake, who began sponsoring the McKinney School group three years ago, has helped her team do well each year. This year is no exception.

At the first level of competition, held in January, the Yellow Springs eighth-grade team placed 2nd out of about 15 teams, and the seventh-grade team placed 4th. Seventh grader Lara Donnelly won two “best-of-round” awards, meaning her story was judged best of her 88 competitors, and ranked third overall in her grade level. Eighth grader Erin Silvert-Noftle won one “best-of-round,” and eighth grader Lasena Badger placed fourth overall in her grade level.

Eighth-grade team members who will participate in the next level of competition are Erin Silvert-Noftle, Sarah Evans, Lasena Badger and Allison Gulick. Seventh graders are Lara Donnelly, Rose Pelzl, Emile Fleming and Danielle Doubt.

Blake wasn’t a bit surprised about her teams’ good showing. In fact, she expected both teams to place first in their grade levels.

“What they write here,” she said, “is amazing.”

And while the success helps motivate the group to keep practicing for the next level of competition — the regional takes place in April, the state in May — most of the kids said they show up twice a week because they have fun.

“I usually have writer’s block and can’t write, except when I come here,” said Danielle Doubt. “Then I get a prompt and it helps.”

“In school, writing is homework,” said Niquelle Orr. “Here, it’s our choice.”

Power of the Pen gives young people who love to write an audience and a group to share with, Blake said. While other creative people, such as musicians and actors, share their creativity in a group, writers traditionally work by themselves.

“Writing is usually a solo activity, and it’s lonely,” Blake said. “This is like a club for kids who want to write.”

Part of the club’s fun — aside from the snacks Blake and the students bring in — seems to be the young people’s affectionate teasing of their teacher.

“After school she’s not the Grammar Woman anymore, like she is in school,” one student said of Blake. “She’s nice.”

But nice doesn’t fully convey how Blake relates to the group. When group members read their stories out loud, Blake is animated, enthusiastic, supportive of each person’s best efforts and honest with the parts that need work.

What comes through is Blake’s caring for both young people and the written word. The students, in their feedback to each other, also express both appreciative support and honest criticism.

“They learn quickly how to listen to others,” Blake said. “If they hear something that’s good, they know it’s good, even it they’re not quite there yet themselves. But they learn from it.”

Blake said that she’s amazed at the students’ creativity, at the varied and original responses to the prompts, or an idea students must write about. In response to the prompt “the velvet ribbon,” she said, one student wrote about a ribbon on someone who died, while another wrote of a baby and a third wrote about a first kiss.

“They transcend the topic,” Blake said. “They go someplace else.” That someplace else is a place where students address, in a creative way, the issues in their lives, or the events they see around them, Blake believes.

“Writing is like a door,” she said. “You have all these hallways in your mind, all these thoughts and feelings you can’t communicate. I think writing helps kids realize that the way to make sense of what’s in their mind is to let it out the door and to share it. It gives them a chance to express what they’re grappling with.”

Students must want that chance, because each year the Power of the Pen team grows. When Blake first sponsored the activity three years ago, the year she was hired as the McKinney School language arts teacher, about six students showed up. On the first day this year, 18 showed up, she said. Students worried that there were too many writers, but the group has dwindled as young people got caught up in winter sports activities.

But a lively and enthusiastic group, the “hard-core writers,” keep coming, she said.

Blake is one of those hard-core writers, and at least once a week, she joins in and writes a story, offering it to her students for suggestions. She has so much fun, she said, that for the first two years she volunteered her time, although this year she receives a small stipend as Power of the Pen sponsor. But, she makes clear, if she didn’t get paid, she’d do it anyway.

Blake never had such a group, when she was a young person growing up in Philadelphia, so she wrote by herself. Although she “can always remember writing,” Blake recalled a pivotal moment when she was singled out by a high school teacher who honored her work and helped her see herself as a writer. “She helped me to respect the part of myself that wanted to write,” she said.

Just as Aurelia Blake is doing now, with her young writers.

—Diane Chiddister